Fiery Graham eager to 'prove everybody wrong'

July 19th, 2022

DETROIT -- Peyton Graham was watching the MLB Draft unfold Sunday night, waiting for the phone to ring, hoping to hear his name to be mentioned on the broadcast. He had to wait a while.

The hope for a jump into the first round eventually dissipated, followed by the comp rounds. Then the second-round picks began.

“Two minutes later, it was Detroit," he said. "So it happened all pretty quick, but I’m glad I ended up in the Motor City.”

The Tigers ending up drafting him with the No. 51 pick.

Don’t be surprised if that wait ends up being a motivation for Graham, who’s used to having evaluators question him and whether his thin body frame could make it. It's a question he dealt with before in major college baseball.

He proved a point at the University of Oklahoma with the first 20-homer, 30-steal season by a Division I college player in 18 years, leading the Sooners to the College World Series. Now he has more motivation.

“Oh, 100 percent,” Graham said when asked if he felt that little extra motivation. “I mean, you’ve gotta take it with a chip on your shoulder. I’ve always been the guy that’s gotten the cracked end of the stick. I’ve always had to work for everything I’ve gotten. Going into college, I only had one [scholarship] offer. I worked for that, to get to the position I am now, and I’m blessed to be here. But yeah, I’m going to take everything with a chip on my shoulder, just prove everybody wrong.”

His head coach at Oklahoma, Skip Johnson, has seen that sort of energy from Graham firsthand.

“For him, the ceiling is incredible. [The Tigers are getting] an all-star, a superstar that's going to play a long time,” Johnson told reporters in Oklahoma. “He loves to compete. He wins every competitive thing we do on the field, whether it's outfield, popups, bunting -- he's going to win all of them because he's so competitive."

Jace Jung, the Tigers’ first-round pick, saw it, too. The Texas Tech second baseman played and roomed with Graham in summer ball, competing in video games off the field before competing on it. Add in the last couple years in Big 12 Conference play, and they found respect out of similar personalities.

“I love the way he plays,” Jung said. “He gets after it, just like me. I think when we played together [in summer ball], we were probably the two most competitive people in the household, always trying to battle each other.”

Graham laughed when asked about it.

“He shows it, but I feel I’m more competitive,” he said. “He’s just a little bit more vocal about it. I think I’m more competitive with myself and then with the team as well.”

Graham was off to a dynamic start at Oklahoma in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic halted his freshman season. He hit 11 homers in 53 games with a .902 OPS in 2021, but batted .288 with almost as many strikeouts (58) as hits (62).

Then came this season -- first a slow start, then a burst. After an 0-for-4, four-strikeout game against rival Texas on April 1, he was batting .270 with five home runs in 22 games. The next day, he had two hits, two RBIs and three stolen bases against the Longhorns. The day after that, he went 3-for-4 with a home run, four RBIs and another steal.

“We lost that series,” Graham said, “but we found ourselves, and I found myself as well.”

Eventually, the scouts found Graham.

While MLB’s Draft Tracker lists Graham at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Oklahoma lists him at 6-foot-4 and 171 pounds. Either way, He has a lean build that brought into question whether the power can translate.

“I know everybody looks at the body and wouldn’t project power, but the guy’s got freaky power for his build,” Tigers scouting director Scott Pleis said.

The power, Graham says, comes from flexibility. The base-stealing, he said, came from former Major League outfielder and Yankees coach Reggie Willits, who joined Oklahoma as a volunteer assistant this spring and taught Graham how to better harness his speed. The result? Graham went 34-for-36 in stolen bases.

The total package was eye-opening.

"He's got dynamic athleticism," Johnson said. "There's nothing that he can't do on a baseball field. He can run, he can throw, he can hit. He's got power, he's got instincts to play the game, instincts to run the bases. He's got every tool that you can imagine.”

Plus, he has a mindset to constantly prove it.